Home | Archaeology Magazine | More Digs | AIA
Archaeology's Interactive Dig
July 2001-August 2003InteractiveDig Pompeii
Chasing Maiuri: Katarina Garajova (Brno University) and Darren Bailey (Yorkshire, England) reopen a trench dug nearly a century ago by Pompeii's premier archaeologist.
All's Well that Begins with Maiuri's Well: Sarah Buker (Milliken University) and Steven Ellis (University of Sydney) reappraise Maiuri's work.
The Bottom Story: Craig Leyland examines a less outstanding floor in the House of the Surgeon.
Unpeeling the layers: Cindy Drakeman investigates the construction sequence and the relationships of walls and floors in the House of the Surgeon.
Virtually spotless! Robert Darby gently washes the dirt from excavated potsherds.
Drawing conclusions: after sorting through sherds of red-slip ware, Jaye Pont analyzes each piece and draws scale models.

Photos courtesy of the AAPP unless otherwise noted. Click on images to enlarge.

Student and Supervisor Journals

Chasing Mauiri: Three Perspectives (2002)

Katarina Garajova, assistant-supervisor (Brno University, Czech Republic)
   Maiuri was the first Pompeian archaeologist to decide to uncover Pompeii's pre-A.D. 79 history. In 1926 he chose to excavate one of the most famous houses of Pompeii, the House of the Surgeon. It is a great challenge for me to follow in Maiuri's footsteps and to understand his excavation, recording, and interpretation techniques. Our understanding of Pompeii's early history has also been greatly expanded. Day after day, I find myself fascinated by supporting or correcting his conclusions.

Darren Bailey, field-school student (Yorkshire, England)
   For a number of years, I have dug Roman sites in England. I came to Pompeii to experience methods by looking at the development of the city to the time it was destroyed in A.D. 79.
   In the House of the Surgeon, we have been introduced to the excavations of the famous Italian archaeologist Maiuri. The re-excavation of his trenches, using the latest techniques of modern excavation, has shown that the foundation trench of the atrium wall went unrecorded. With meticulous excavation and recording we have been able to see Mauiri's trench profiles and stratigraphy, enabling an accurate identification of the methods he used, which ultimately enabled him to suggest dates and the formation processes of some of the oldest houses in Pompeii. So the fact that Maiuri missed the foundation trench suggests that his dates for the House of the Surgeon may be wrong. The House of the Surgeon may not, in fact, be as old as traditionally thought.
   This opportunity to expand my knowledge and techniques of Italian-Roman archaeology on a World Heritage Site is an unforgettable experience.

Steven Ellis, AAPP supervisor & Porta Marina Project director (University of Sydney, Australia)
   Following the path of such a renowned Pompeian archaeologist as Amedeo Maiuri provides the rare opportunity of revisiting a scientific experiment. After 76 years, we are aided by a more rigorous approach to the stratigraphic sequence and data that are before us.
   With some of his trenches now reopened, we can already identify and reappraise features and sequences which Maiuri saw. So while Maiuri identified the pieces of pottery from the trenches, he didn't consider them in the stratigraphic sequence in which we excavate today. Important features, such as the different floor surfaces or construction trenches for walls went unnoticed.
   On the weight of Maiuri's excavations, the House of the Surgeon has served as a text-book example of an early style of Pompeian domestic architecture. This highlights the importance of our work in this house and of our reopening an earlier chapter of archaeological investigation.

Floor Survey (2002)

Craig Leyland, assistant supervisor (Archaeology, University of Bradford, UK)
   Unless they happen to consist of impressive mosaics, Pompeii's floors are often overlooked in favor of what adorns the walls. However, much can be learnt about the use of space in the city and its properties even from the poorer quality surface found underfoot.
   My Masters thesis next year will aim to look at just what can be seen when examining the distribution of the different floor types--from packed earth to cocciopesto (crushed tile and mortar) to mosaic--and what this shows us about Pompeian life.
   My task as part of the AAPP this season is to plan the surfaces found in the House of the Surgeon. Whilst some mosaics are extant in this property, cocciopesto is the most common floor type seen. This is in stark contrast to next door in the House of the Vestals, where higher-quality mosaic surfaces are far more common. Clearly, this speaks volumes about the relative decorative standards in these two dwellings, and thus further helps us to theorize about the wealth and status of their former inhabitants. More questions can be asked about the divisions within the larger houses--i.e. public/private, family/servant--as well as possible neighborhood or city-wide patterns regarding the status and use of a property on the basis of the types of floor surfaces seen.
   One of the main reasons for planning the surfaces this year is to help decide where to excavate in 2003. Excavation is a destructive process, but good quality floors must be preserved wherever possible. The plans drawn up this season will enable us to position trenches in areas that will potentially yield the most information about the evolution of the House of the Surgeon, while allowing those floors that deserve to remain to continue to exist as they have since A.D. 79 and before. In this way, the AAPP can uncover as much as possible about the archaeology of VI,1, but not at the expense of Pompeii itself.

Wall Analysis and Excavation (2002)

Cindy Drakeman, assistant supervisor (Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, NJ)
   Although the majority of our time is spent peeling away various earthen layers, that is just one part of gaining an understanding into the dynamic life of an ancient building. The internal landscape of a structure is constantly undergoing renovation as walls and floors are added and removed. Only when we understand both the development of floors and the walls that surround them can we begin to put together a picture of the development of that landscape in the ancient world.
   Our process for analyzing walls is nearly identical to the way we examine deposits on the ground. From the time of its earliest construction, various elements are added or taken away from the wall as its shape and function is altered. We look at those elements as layers that we can peel away, just as we dig away floors and fills in the earth. From the latest deposits (such as a wall plaster that was in place in A.D. 79) back to the stones that make up the original construction of the wall, each layer is a clue to the way that space developed over time. Overlapping layers of plaster or a blocked up doorway provide us with insights into the different stages of both that wall and the overall layout of the room. When we combine our information from the walls with our findings from digging the floors, we can create a three-dimensional model of the evolution of a room or house from creation to pyroclastic burial.
   This season, we began excavating in The House of the Surgeon, which is one of the most famous in Pompeii for its unusual construction style--nearly every wall in the house is built by stacking large rectangular blocks of stone on top of each other. Early scholars declared that this technique (called opus quadratum) was one of the oldest building styles in Pompeii and, therefore, the House of the Surgeon must be one of the oldest houses in the city. With that in mind, our ability to actually date the walls of the house is one of our most important jobs this summer because it will prove or disprove a long held notion about the development of construction styles in Pompeii.
   We date the walls by analyzing material from earthen deposits in each room and then examining the relationship between the walls and that deposit. For instance, if the foundation stones of a wall are built into a layer that has material from the second century B.C., we know that the wall cannot have been built before the second century. Now, we know not only the general construction date of the wall, but also the way that it interacted with the floors around it, which allows us to chart the changing boundaries of that room over time as well as in space.
   No archaeological study would be complete without a thorough understanding of the way that walls and floors interact. To focus solely on one or the other will provide you with an incomplete and fractured view of development, but to combine the knowledge gained from each can provide you with a comprehensive understanding of the evolution of space in the ancient world.

Pot Washing (2002)

Robert Darby, student (Classics, Tufts University, MA)
   One of the most enjoyable and interesting experiences that I have had as an AAPP student is working with the numerous artifacts that are recovered every day. Seeing the artifacts up close and holding them in your hands connects you with the past in a way no museum can. An important part of my artifacts training, which provided such an opportunity, was pot washing.
   By carefully cleaning each sherd, evidence of those who made it slowly emerges. From an artist's inscription on an oil lamp to impressions left in the clay by a potter's fingers as they worked it on the wheel, I feel a unique sense of closeness to the people who lived and worked in Pompeii. It is this feeling that truly brings the artifacts and those who used them to life.

Pottery (2002)

Jaye Pont, Chief Finds Illustrator & Ceramics Specialist (Ancient History, Macquarie University, Australia)
   The ceramic assemblage of the House of the Vestals presents a variety of pottery types, one of which is red-slip domestic tableware. Examination reveals that the majority of this pottery originated from within the Italian peninsula, in addition to a few vessels imported from North Africa and Gaul. Of the vessels of Italian manufacture, the majority is from Arretine production centers, exhibiting fine intricate profiles and glossy slipped surfaces. The remaining tableware is of local manufacture, displaying heavier profiles and slipped surfaces of inferior quality. In contrast, the red slip assemblage from the nonresidential areas of the insula displays a different ratio. No imported pottery is evident and the locally produced ceramics increase in frequency. Thus the better quality products appear to be confined to the elite residential areas of the insula, suggesting social differences in the consumption of ceramics for use at the table.

2001 Journal Excerpts


Courtney Ward, geology and Mediterranean archaeology major, Tulane University (Louisiana, USA), smiles with thoughts of the Wild West and Indiana Jones.

July 5, 2001
We started on the
triclinium very carefully, and we learned how to sieve. It was rather exciting--for a few brief moments I was out in the Wild West panning for gold, only my gold came in the form of tesserae, shells, potsherds, plaster, and shrapnel. I went through four buckets of this adventure, but then Rick came in and turned our gold to pyrite. And so we stopped our sieving, disregarding what we now knew was modern debris, and started hard-core shifting of material to reveal the triclinium. By the end of the day we had found some triclinium sides and floor. I was particularly thrilled because this was the area, which I had worked on earlier. Mayhap not an Indiana Jones moment, but exciting for me nonetheless.

July 6, 2001
Our morning began by preparing our site for its internet debut. We cleaned out impressive amounts of rubbish to reveal almost the entirety of the triclinium. It was most exciting because I personally uncovered a whole side and top of the couch. It's brilliant when you can see such large-scale results from your efforts (or should I say my efforts). By the end of the say, we even had the cocciopesto sparkling for the camera.


Keffie Feldman, archaeology and art history major, Tufts University (Massachusetts, USA) is thrilled about earthen surfaces in a backroom of a bar.

July 12, 2001
With trowels in hand, we set out to uncover the answers to how the area in our bar was used. Our quest is for information about the way common people of Pompeii lived their daily lives. We aren't searching for mosaic floors or marble statues; our treasures are floor surfaces or indications of plaster in the corners of walls. Most people wouldn't believe my excitement when removing a layer of loose brown soil only to come down onto a layer of HARD brown soil. To most people dirt is dirt, but for us that compacted soil is the very information we are looking for. We have uncovered several important structures so far--a toilet, a well, a threshold--and about all of them my supervisor Steven says (in his charming Australian accent): "This is very important because this is INFORMATION." We do also find evidence of material culture like bones from animals they ate, coins from money they exchanged, and all types of pots.

This work requires an immense amount of imagination, but it is also important to remember that the people who occupied this space were probably much like you and me.


Caroline McKenzie, classics major, Skidmore College (New York, USA) unearths a lidded vessel buried in the a bar's backroom.

July 13, 2001
I got the fun job of cleaning off the area around the intact vessel (with lid) we found in the northwest corner of our trench. It was so interesting to gently tap at the soil on the wall and near the pot and have it fall away to reveal the whole pot. As I took out the surrounding soil--a dark gray-brown silty sand with large inclusions--the whole vessel began to surface. It was amazing to think that our team members were the first people to see it since it was buried over 2,000 years ago. It was so humbling and uplifting. It really connects you to the people who lived here and makes you wonder why people do what they do. We don't know why someone buried the vessel, but we do know it was buried for a couple reasons. Rarely do we find intact pottery. The fact that the vessel was whole and had its lid still in place tells us that someone intentionally buried it there. Also, there is a very clear cut mark in the soil with very different soil types. This suggests the vessel was deposited.


Jim Bachor, associate creative director at FCBi Chicago (Illinois, USA), reconsiders the so-called soap factory.

July 25, 2001
Although the tourists' signage refers to our structure as being a "soap factory," we knew from the beginning that its function had nothing to do with cleaning. Each day's work nudges us sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically towards knowing what really went on here almost 2,000 years back.

It's fascinating to me how the excitement of finding your first coin fades only to be replaced with the enthusiasm of interpreting a day's discoveries. Now troweling up large concentrations of charcoal (evidence of burning/cooking?) or hammerscale (evidence of metalworking) get my imagination going. What was going on in this corner or that corner? Were they related activities? Why was that doorway widened? Perhaps to allow more traffic to move in the space or more equipment (?). What about the 3 holes arranged in a triangle on the floor? A tripod base for metalworking?

Just as evidence mounts towards what surely is some sort of an industrial shop, other realizations seem to contradict that. A votive niche in the north wall? Was this once a residential space or did the shop owner worship some sort of deity that looks over metalworkers? Another question arises when, while next to no plaster is found on the standing walls, loads of it are found in the trench. Does this imply some other previous use for the space or just a shop owner who wanted this to look better than the competition? Or, perhaps, has the plaster from the final phase fallen off and deteriorated in 200 years of exposure to Pompeii's sun and modern pollution? Tomorrow may answer these questions while certainly asking more.


Syd Evans, classical archaeology major (University of Sydney, Australia), excavates the mysterious ceramic feature inside VI,1,4. Only through its total excavation will we begin to be able to understand its purpose and function.

July 25, 2001
At this stage, the
feature remains quite confusing as regards to its function. Once again we have to remind ourselves of the destructive nature of archaeology and that when we excavate it must be slow but deliberate. We must constantly be aware of any changes in the nature of the material. Remember what we find may not always be pretty but may be the work of destruction as well as construction. Rick Jones, our project director, highlighted a possible pick mark that may indicate the destruction of the feature. Once again, care must be taken. Anything may be possible. Also, we must remember that perhaps we can never know. The feature may produce nothing.


Kellam Conover (classics major, Swarthmore College) liked running soil samples through the flotation machine.

August 1, 2001
I always enjoy learning new information and today was no exception. Learning and applying that information is what delights me. Like being able to scan a sieve of dirt and rocks etc. and being able to identify a miniscule fragment of a rock as a piece of tufa, or bone, or even a freakin' sea-urchin spine, fer cryin' out loud, is just really cool! It's like a scavenger hunt, and that's fun.

...And then there are diets. Why are diets so important? Well, the archaeology of any human habitation site has a fundamental objective in understanding how people lived. People live off food, and understanding the type of food they ate and how they got it is part of this understanding. Yes Romans ate, say ORANGES (thanks Tom), but oranges are not native to Italy. Therefore there must have been trading with areas that grew oranges. On a larger scale diet can indicate social organisation in an urban area. The consumption of milk and beef indicates not only that farmers OUTSIDE the area "grew" these foods, but also that there was social interaction between urban and rural, if not a market economy.

Examining a peoples diet may also be an indicator of their health status. A poor diet may suggest ill health or a poor cultural status. To put it bluntly, diets matter.

Previous pageNext page

InteractiveDig is produced by ARCHAEOLOGY Magazine
© 2004 Archaeological Institute of America

Home | Archaeology Magazine | More Digs | AIA